The Citizens Convention – A new Democratic Procedure for Decision-Making on Research and Innovation Issues

Par et
mercredi 28 octobre 2015


What is a Citizens Convention?

The Citizens Convention is a participatory procedure aiming at informing people about political decision processes on research and innovation issues. It combines three phases: a prior training (during which a drawn by lot group of 15 citizens are studying), an active intervention (during which these citizens are questioning) and a collective positioning (during which citizens are expressing an advice). A Citizens Convention offers an appropriate setting for general concerns without any geographical restriction. The only limitation is the level of maturation of the dealt topic, which must be high enough.

This method is based on the « unfailing evidence » that a drawn by lot group of citizens is able to apprehend a topic, as complex as it could be (without taking into account local or immediate interests), to propose solutions directly connected with the needs of the society too often ignored by experts and rarely heeded by political bodies.

Why Citizens Conventions are needed? 

Because the Citizens Convention appears as  one of the most democratic method proper to help elected officials to make choices and to take relevant decisions for the public greater good.

Because innovations give rise to controversies, that can not be solved by elected officials alone, who are often under pressure from industrial lobbies or experts, themselves not devoid of conflict of interests.

Because citizens’ participation can not be reduced to information or liaising.

A Bill about Citizens Convention: What for?

In spite of hundreds of experiments led worldwide during the last twenty years, most of the procedures presented as « consensus conferences » do not follow a precise and relevant enough protocol to ensure their quality, their independence and therefore their credibility. Credibility is a key issue to generalize a participatory procedure and its use by political decision makers.

Initiated by the Fondation Sciences Citoyennes (i.e. ~ Citizen’s Science Foundation, FSC, France) and impulsed by the French concerned scientist Jacques Testart, a precise methodology has been elaborated under the leadership of a group of eminent scientists. Thanks to the support of the Île-de-France Region in the frame of one of its programme called PICRI (acronym for Partenariat institutions-citoyens pour la recherche et l’innovation i.e. Partnership Institutions-Citizens for Research and Innovation), several international experiments of consensus conferences were first studied. Then the conditions were defined and structured to allow laypeople to elaborate freely a documented and representative of the common interest position to enable political officials to have a comprehensive view of an innovation before promoting its use or not.

The name Citizens Convention was chosen for the bill to avoid the ambiguity increased by self-proclaimed Citizens or Consensus Conferences.

Procedure for the Organization of a Citizens Convention
by a new Section of the European Economic and Social Committee

The procedure described below is relevant at the European level but it can be used at a national one by creating a specific national committee or a dedicated « agency ».

Procedure for the Organization of a Citizens Convention by a Section of the European Economic and Social Committee

1. Launch of a Citizens Convention

A new section of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) named « House of Citizens« , should be in charge of gathering and following up the requests for Citizens Convention, according to a specific procedure.

A Citizens Convention proposal could come not only from « authorized » persons – regarding the European and national laws – to refer to the EESC (Prime Minister, citizens who would have signed a petition, EESC itself, etc.) but also from a Parlementary Group or an European or National Agency.

Once the request is validated, an Organizing Committee, composed by two thirds of members coming from the House of Citizens and by one third of qualified personalities with appropriate skills, is made up within the House of Citizens. It appoints a Steering Committee, recruits the Facilitator and ensures the conduct of the procedure. It writes a constitutive Charta, which defines the guidelines of the Citizens Convention.

2. Selection of the Citizen Panel   

The price to pay for citizens not only to be consulted but also to participate is to have a limited number of drawn by lot persons. Unlike the statistical representativeness (which would impose a group of at least one thousand people), the diversity of citizens within the panel of a Citizens’ Convention  is based on criteria such as age, gender, socio-professional category, region/country, political views, etc. It is possible with a sample of 15 persons.

Moreover selected citizens must be laypeople concerning the topic of the Citizens’ Convention. It means that they should be disinterested without notable conflict of interest in terms of professional relationships or of involvement within associations and union movements.

3. Relevance of the Training Period for the Citizen Panel

The Training Period of the Citizen Panel has to allow them to get the required information to take an enlightened stand on the question they have to answer. It implies that the training elaborated by the Steering Committee offers a real plurality of opinions and disciplines related to the topic. The consensus building on the training programme, adopted by the Steering Committee, ensures the diversity of views without any particular orientation. The Steering Committee also has to select by consensus the outside speakers with a clearly expressed « Position Paper ». These Position Papers are presented as a free and voluntary written contribution based on observations, proposals, advices or opinions in link with the topic of the convention.

The first part of the Training Period – the Initial Training – will remind the role of the citizens in a democracy and present the issues of the Citizens’ Convention mainly under «technical» aspects such as factual information on the topic.

The second part – the Secondary Training – will propose different analyses of the topic to present the question in terms of contradictory stakes to prepare the future debate.

The Public Debate will be conducted and led by the Citizen Panel, who will be able to interview speakers chosen by them at in the end of the Training Period.

Moreover the citizens will deliberate behind closed doors in the presence of a Facilitator with the aim of writing recommendations for actions. The Facilitator, as the only direct interlocutor of the panel and without taking any position on the topic of the debate, must ensure that each participant can express advice or points of view.

In the end, the European Parliament will have either to endorse the action plan and the recommendations proposed by the citizens panel or will have to argument eventual discrepancies, thanks to Legislative Resolution.

From Consensus Conference to Citizens Convention

The Citizens Convention has been inspired by the Citizens Conference, itself is a transposition of Consensus Conferences. Originally performed for the medical area, the Consensus Conference is based on the systematic search of a consensus between practitioners sollicitated in the frame of a medical practice. On the other hand, the Citizens Conference gathers non-specialists and can lead to dissenting opinions.

In the mid-80’s, the Danish Board of Technology, launched the actual practice by adaptating the methodology to ordinary citizens. The methodology was introduced in France by the Office Parlementaire d’Evaluation des Choix Scientifiques et Technologiques (i.e. ~French Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment, OPECST) in 1998, by experiencing a Citizens Conference on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

The Citizens Conference is one of the recognized forms of participation to Public Debate such as Citizens Juries, Scenario Workshops or Deliberative Polls. The Citizens Convention should allow to go one step further in active participation since the process ensures the fact that citizens are part of the decision making.

A Fondation Sciences Citoyennes Initiative    

Launched in 2002, the association for a Fondation Sciences Citoyennes (i.e. ~ Citizen’s Science Foundation, FSC) aims at supporting and prolonging the current movement of democratic and civil appropriation of science in order to put it at the service of the common good. In recent years a growing number of crises (Fukushima, Chernobyl, asbestos, contaminated blood, BSE, GMOs…) has shown the need to take account other interests and risks than those defined by the techno-scientific industries concerning the orientation of research policies.

The Citizens Convention is one of the needed tools for a new « social contract » able to make a citizens’ science more responsible and solidarity-based possible.

Since participative procedures develop more and more , FSC decided to launch in France the Observatoire des procédures participatives en recherche et innovation (i.e. ~ Participatory Procedures on Research and Innovation Observatory, OPPRI). Supported by a Scientific Committee composed of academics, this observatory aims at evaluating the scientific and democratic quality of procedures presented as Citizens Conferences.